She lay, fully clothed on the bed. It was Winter daylight, reflecting off the fresh snow that covered the lawn again, that made the room so bright. It hurt her eyes and her head throbbed. The smell of fried bacon wafted up her nose. It brought back memories of weekends with her parents, when they would be up at dawn for a hearty cooked breakfast before setting off to Church. She groaned; her parents had been in France for a year now, so who was cooking breakfast?
She stumbled down the stairs. She didn’t remember having anything to drink last night, but this hangover felt like she’d been to one hell of a party. She could hear the bacon sizzling now as she peered round the door to the kitchen.
The man in black stood at the cooker, juggling pans like an expert chef, cracking eggs into one of them and flipping the bacon in the other simultaneously. The toaster popped and two slices of toast were swiftly buttered and placed on a plate.
So it hadn’t been a dream.
“Sit down,” he called, over his shoulder. “It’ll be ready in a minute.”
It unnerved her, the way he knew she was there, even with his back to her and his earphones in. She wasn’t going to argue with him and watched as he dished up a generous helping of baked beans. He was humming a tune she knew well now and it sounded good. Good enough for a choir.
Choir of angels, said a voice in her head.
He placed the plate in front of her and poured real coffee from her mother’s best silver cafetière, then looked up to find her wary eyes on him.
“Sorry, I’ll try not to intrude.”
He sat opposite her and Kate tried to guard her thoughts.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Like I’ve been hit by a bus.”
He reached out to touch her face. Kate drew back instinctively, but his fingers brushed her cheek and her head felt much clearer.
“Better?” he said.
She stared at him and nodded, ashamed that she’d doubted his intentions.
“You should eat now,” he said, gesturing at the plate.
She felt ravenous, as though she hadn’t eaten for weeks. She picked up her knife and fork, took a mouthful of food and stopped. It tasted wonderful. Like food should taste, only better. She threw caution to the wind and tucked in.
“So what happened last night?” she asked. “One minute we were talking, then nothing.”
“You passed out. I think I overdosed you on my aura. It’s been a while since I tried that and I’m out of practice. It was shock too I expect”
“Where did you get all this?”
She waved the knife over her food. She hadn’t done any shopping that week and knew the fridge had been almost empty.
“Ah, I had to go shopping. Your freezer is full of crap and your fridge didn’t have anything other than milk and butter in it. You ought to look after yourself better, you know.”
He looked at her as if using words like crap and going shopping were perfectly normal things for angels to do. Stealing was out of the question, obviously. So, where did angels get their money from?
“I think we need to talk,” she said when she’d cleared her plate, scraping back her chair and heading for the lounge.
She paused in the doorway, returned to the table, poured another cup of the delicious coffee and walked away. Ashrafel smiled, then followed her.
Above all else, she needed to know one thing and got straight to the point.
“Why are you here?” Kate asked.
The angel cocked his head on one side, considering how best to proceed.
“You should never have found the diary,” he said. “But now that you have you need to read the rest of Catherine’s story.”
“Yes, now. It’s the easiest way to answer your question.”
Kate picked up the journal and tried to get comfortable in the armchair. She felt self-conscious with him watching her, but he nodded once, encouraging her to begin and she opened the book, continuing from where she’d left off the previous evening.
Ash leaned back into the settee, he closed his eyes and waited for her to finish.
September 12th 1479
It is days before Thomas speaks to her again. He comes every evening to leave a thin gruel for her to survive on. On the fifth day he crouches down next to her weakened body and strokes her hair.
“I have come to give you one last chance, Catherine. Summon the angel and kill him for me and your life will be spared.”
She has little strength but pushes herself up and looks into his eyes.
This one word seals her fate.
He lashes out so fast she never sees it coming. Her head snaps back and hits the wall behind; she loses consciousness. Thomas lifts her body in his arms and takes her from the cell. He climbs the narrow steps into the church and out into the bright, midday sun.
The whole town has gathered on the little green where their sheep are put to graze. They gasp when they see her and draw back as Thomas carries her through their midst to a barrel piled round with kindling. They make the sign against evil as he places her into it and she sinks into the thick black tar. The boy I stopped from harming her runs forward to pull the chain around her middle and secure her to the pole that someone has driven into the ground.
Catherine stirs and the boy spits in her face. Her arms are pressed to her body by the chain, preventing her from wiping the spittle away.
Thomas turns to the crowd. For the first time in weeks I see him in daylight. He has changed beyond all recognition. Unshaven and filthy, his eyes are red rimmed from the time he has been spending in the dark, reading the infernal book. He raises his arms as he addresses the crowd and his sleeves fall back, revealing his bare arms. They are covered in cuts where he has used his own blood for the dark rituals he has performed. He is beyond help.
“It is my sad duty to inform you that my niece has been tempted by the Devil. She has readily admitted to conversing with spirits and demons and refuses to denounce them and turn back to God. I have no recourse but to commit her to the flames for the crime of witchcraft.”
The crowd cheers. The boy who had chained her returns with a burning brand. Thomas takes it from him and thrusts it into the wood ignoring Catherine’s cries for mercy. The flame catches on the spilled tar and ignites the next branch and the next until the flames are as high as Catherine’s waist. The crowd surges forward to watch, caught up in the hysteria of the moment.
Thomas retreats to a safe distance and turns to watch as his daughter is consumed by fire. The village has never seen a burning before. Neither has Thomas. They have heard tales of people sent to the flames for crimes of treason and witchcraft but are unprepared for its true horror.
I care not for them, my thoughts are for Catherine and the agony she is about to experience as the flames blacken her skin and blood and fat runs, hissing and steaming.
I cannot save her from death, but I can shield her from the pain. I stand in the flames with her. She is fully conscious now and screaming with terror.
“Fear not,” I tell her as I wrap my aura around her. “I am with you.”
She feels nothing now, cocooned in the glow of my aura. I hear the people gasp as they see Catherine, radiant with angelic light, her face serene and smiling. Beyond the crowd I see Thomas, falling to his knees as the evil grip of the book releases him. It has no need of him anymore, its purpose is thwarted by Catherine’s death. Realisation of what he has done hits him at last and he begins to push his way through the crowd, but it is too late. Catherine is gone, and so am I.
My punishment is swift and terrible. I deserve no less.
* * *
“I’ve been dreaming about this.” Kate said, horrified. “Except in the dream I was the one burning.”
“That’s not surprising,” he replied, unable to look at her. “Keep reading.”
She frowned at his reaction, but did as he asked.
After my fall the first thing I notice is the smell, refuse and human excrement mixed with rotting meat and animal bones thrown by the inhabitants of the village into the little stream that flows past the village. After that, emotions. I had never needed any other emotion than love before, now I know what grief is, and anger, one after the other and back again. I do not care if anyone sees me as I sit and cry on the banks of the brook where Catherine and I used to walk, clutching at my chest, which feels like it will burst from the pain of loss. Loss of home, loss of love and worst of all, loss of Catherine. Then anger takes over again and I roar at the sky, fists clenched in hopelessness.
It subsides, eventually, but the pain remains. I look down and find myself wearing the clothes of a peasant of the day. The coarse linen and wool feels rough against my skin.
I am afraid to do so, but I must know and I try extending my wings. I cannot express the relief at the familiar feel of their presence and at the same time, the horror at their transformation. They are black!
I retch and experience the strange feeling of my own stomach trying to turn itself inside out. I didn’t need to eat, but I could if I chose to. There is nothing in my stomach but bile and it stings my throat as I vomit. It mingles with the other detritus and adds to the stench. I weep once more, then begin the slow, wretched walk into the village.
I find the place deserted. It is late, dusk, and the people have gone to their homes. I hope they are ashamed of what they have done. The anger wells up in me again, but I push it down. I must learn to control it if I am to redeem myself and return home.
I stand before the charred ground where Catherine’s remains mingle with the dirt, remove my shirt and use it to gather the ashes. Then, I go to find Thomas.
The terror in his eyes when he sees me gives me some small satisfaction. He is on his knees in the church. Just as Catherine was the day I let her see me for the first time. He is praying for forgiveness and thinks I have come to kill him. As angry as I am I will not disobey God’s commandments. I am still an angel, even if I am a fallen one.
When he sees how pathetic I am, he takes me into his home and offers me sustenance. I refuse it. I hold out my miserable package and am appalled when he tells me we cannot give Catherine a proper Christian burial on holy ground. He seems truly repentant for the things he has done, and takes me to another room where he shows me the sacks of gold he has acquired through his use of the black arts. He has a plan that he hopes will redeem him. He intends to build a great church on the site where the chapel stands, dedicated to the glory of God and he will perform acts of charity, using his ill gotten gains to make amends.
“I loved her mother. I loved Catherine,” he says. “I would have married her if I could. I wanted her to run away with me, leave the church, go where no one knew us and raise our child as man and wife.”
I nod and listen while he finally unburdens himself of the secret that has haunted him for so long.
“She kept her pregnancy hidden for as long as she could, but when the Abbess found out, she expelled Catherine from the convent. By the time she gave birth she was already gravely ill. The strain killed her. I named our daughter after her, to keep her memory alive.”
Thomas broke down in tears.
“I did what I could for our babe. My hope was that my brother and his wife would give her a comfortable life, but God even punished me for that. She already knew me as Uncle when I took her in, but I loved her as a daughter, even if she or no one else could know it.”
He reached out and gripped my hands.
“Was I wrong to love her mother? Was I wrong to love Catherine?”
“No, Thomas. It was not wrong.”
“Then why was I punished so harshly?”
“God did not punish you, Thomas. It was simply the harsh reality of life in these times.”
His wide eyes, wet with tears and full of remorse are desperate for some reassurance.
“So, there is still hope for me?”
“Yes,” I say. “There is always hope.”
For me, redemption won’t be so easy. I place Catherine’s ashes in a linen bag that I will carry with me, and leave. I go to York. In the city I find a silversmith and persuade him to teach me his trade in return for work. At the end of a year I have made Catherine a silver casket to keep her ashes in. I engrave it all over with the daisies she used to pick so often. In the centre of one I place a diamond, transformed by my own hands from a small piece of coal fallen from the scuttle. For every life she lives I will add one more.
When I return to the village, Thomas has begun work on his new church. He shows me a space beneath the floor that will form the chancel. It is a most sacred, secret space and no one will ever know that Catherine’s ashes are placed there.
I leave Thomas Whittle then. There is nothing more for me here and I must wait until she returns to the world. Where, I know not, but I will find her wherever she is and watch over her as I should have done.
* * *
September 12th 1489
It is more than a decade since Catherine’s death and still she has not returned to me. I come every year on this date to the village. Thomas is no longer here, but his new, grand church is finished. I am told by one of the villagers that he hung himself from the Yew tree in the churchyard more than a month ago. It seems that once his work was done he could no longer stand the torments of the demons that visited him nightly. I slip into the church and marvel at its grandeur. I say a prayer for both Thomas and Catherine before slipping away. There is no sign of the black book or the golden box with the dagger. They have vanished, but I know I will see them again and they will draw us all back together; to play a part in Thomas and Catherine’s lives to come, again and again.
* * *
So that was it, the end of Catherine’s story and the reason the angel was here, with Kate, now. She had come to realise why he’d insisted she read to the end and why, in her dream, she had relived Catherine’s hideous death at the hands of a man she didn’t even know was her father. The last paragraph had confirmed her growing suspicion, but she still swallowed before asking the question to which she already knew the answer.
“Is it me?” she asked, her voice no more than a whisper.
He said nothing.
“Is she me?” she demanded.
The angel flinched and nodded.
“Or more precisely, you were her.”
An impatient loud knocking made her jump. She looked at Ash. He didn’t move; for some reason she’d expected him to want to hide, but why should he? To the uninitiated he looked like an ordinary man.
“It’s Brian,” he said, when she got up to answer the door.
She rolled her eyes.
Brian studied his feet as he stood on the doorstep, one hand tucked into the back pocket of his jeans, a biker’s helmet dangling from the other.
“You never called,” he said. “I thought I’d better make sure you hadn’t been murdered.”
Kate swallowed and thought about the body in the alley. According to Ash it would disappear, leaving no evidence it ever existed.
“Well, as you can see I’m perfectly all right.”
He nodded, looking her over to convince himself and then glared past her at the figure that stepped out into the hallway.
“So I see,” he sighed.
“You could come in, Brian. Get to know…”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m off for a run on the bike. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”
He thrust the helmet on to his head and turned to leave. She watched him ride off, tyres squealing, and shut the door.
* * *
The journal lay balanced on her lap and she leafed through the pages again. Where Catherine’s story finished there was a single blank page and beyond that more writing. Kate wanted to look at the next entry, but the angel stepped in, his hands closed around hers and took the diary from her.
“You can’t,” he said. “It’s too soon.”
She had no idea what he meant by that, but it didn’t matter. Looking up at his face, so close to hers, she was glad she was sitting down.
“I don’t understand. You waited for Catherine to be reborn so you could make amends for her death and go back to Heaven, right?”
“Yes,” he said. “It didn’t work out too well.”
“Why didn’t you save her from Thomas when you had the chance. You could have stopped him, couldn’t you?”
“Yes, I could have stopped Thomas, I could have killed him, but if I had I would have fallen forever and become a demon”
The pain she saw in his eyes told her he had wished many times that he’d done this very thing.
At last, he stepped away from her, releasing her from his gaze.
“But why are you here now? You haven’t done anything to hurt me.”
“Haven’t I?” He turned back to her, his eyes dark and hard.
“Have you never wondered why you’re so stuck in the past, Kate?”
She tried to protest but he raced on.
“When you were a child, where was your favourite place to play?”
He didn’t wait for her to answer.
“In the churchyard, among the graves of people you once knew when you were Catherine.”
It was true, she had even thought about it as she stood at the churchyard gate the day she’d found the book. He took her hands, pulled her up from the chair and went on. Kate tried to pull away, but he dragged her after him into the dining room which she used as a study.
“You took a degree in history, studying the past. The books you read,” his hand swept the shelves that held her library as he walked round the room. “Historical fiction, historical fact.”
Ashrafel strode into the kitchen and came back with a crumpled piece of paper.
“Every day, you spend your life in a career searching for long dead people and you shy away from any relationship, not just intimate ones, because deep down you’re afraid of being hurt in a way you don’t even understand. You won’t even go to your school reunion,” he said waving the letter in front of her.
She folded her arms and looked at the floor. Everything he said was true and she didn’t like the way he was exposing her so easily. He paused, letting his words sink in, then added more gently.
“It’s my fault Kate, and the longer it goes on the worse it gets.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said, stepping close to her and cupping her face in both hands. “You have to work it out for yourself. All I can say is that you’re the only one who can send me home.”